Montreal Nouveau 2019: MONOS, Teenaged Soldiers Descent into Madness
For a long time, likely one of the few things most people knew about Colombia is that is was a country with a huge number of kidnappings. So many, in fact, that there was a radio show that ran for 25 years, dedicated to voices of the families of the kidnapped, in vain hopes that they would be heard. Less-widely known was the widespread recruitment of child soldiers in the nearly 50-year internal armed conflict. Alejandro Landes' widely-lauded and awarded feature Monos takes both a somewhat dream-like and harsh realistic look at this situation, with a keen eye to the brutality that comes with isolation, forced and unfocused indoctrination, and youthful boredom.
A group of teenage soldiers - codenamed Wolf, Lady, Smurf, Rambo, Dog, Boom-Boom, Swede, and Bigfoot - are part of 'The Organization', a paramilitary group operating in an unnamed South American country. They live high in the mountains, at a strange abandoned and decrepid building, charged with caring for a hostage (an American engineer they call 'Doctora'). While they are occasionally visited by their superior, The Messenger, who trains them, it seems most of the time it's just them, with uncertain orders beyond their hostage, and no idea how long they will be there.
Landes starts it off fairly simply, in showcasing the groups' strange rituals: practising their military training with The Messenger before he leaves, asking for consideration on certain matters. Once he has left, at first, their behaviour seems relatively normal for teenage maturity: the few girls braid each others' hair; they 'spank' one of their number on his birthday; they drink and dabble in sexual play. But they are often bored, they are young and full of energy, and they have guns.
Things start to fall apart when they accidently kill the cow they were told to keep safe, their unit commander Wolf kills himself, then their position is attacked, and then, well, things go from barely livable to Lord-of-the-Flies pretty darn fast. Their devotion to The Organization, whether voluntary or forced, fractures as they succumb to the more forceful and radical in their number, and show increasingly loyalty to only themselves and their 'family', which will inevitably leave a few of their number behind.
We are given two backdrops to this behaviour and descent into madness. The first is a lonely mountaintop, jutting up above the clouds. It seems like justa few steps in the wrong direction and you would freefall to earth; the teenagers live as if on some space platform far from any other living thing, far from the conflict, far from any consequences, until they screw up and the conflict comes proverbially knocking at their door.
Cinematographer Jasper Wolf enhances the dream-like quality of their mountain habitat against their scrappy existence, then switches that once they are forced to relocate to the jungle below. Here, there is life everywhere, hostile and unwanted, and that includes the group. As Bigfoot takes control and Rambo questions their loyalty to the cause - which quickly turns to loyalty to this 'family' as they make their own rebellion. Landes shifts some attention to the hostage and this breakdown and Wolf follows by pushing inward, as the outside world closes in and the 'family', or what remains of it, violently pushes back.
Composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Marjorie Prime, Jackie) adds music that sets the story on edge, enhancing themes of the world against the family, an electronic discordance against the naturalism of childhood, a mirror to how this war, and these children, should not be in this place at all. Monos is at once a dream, a nightmare, and the terrifying reality of Colombia's (and many other countries') past and present, a world in which children who are forced to grow too fast refuse to grow at all and yet utilize the tools of adulthood for their own terrifying and violent ends.